October 16, 2012

Modesto man found guilty in store clerk's death

A jury found a 29-year-old man guilty of first-degree murder Tuesday in the shooting of a convenience store clerk as the defendant was leaving the business during a botched robbery five years ago in north Modesto.

A jury found a 29-year-old man guilty of first-degree murder Tuesday in the shooting of a convenience store clerk as the defendant was leaving the business during a botched robbery five years ago in north Modesto.

Ronnie Javier Cavazos of Modesto also was convicted of attempted robbery in connection with the shooting death of 29-year-old Randeep Singh, the store clerk from India who had just started working the graveyard shift at the family-owned business.

"We're never going to get our Randeep back," said Surinder Bhatti, the victim's aunt. But she said her family was glad the defendant won't be able to do this to someone else.

In the same trial, the jury found Cavazos guilty of kidnapping and robbery for carjacking a woman and holding her captive at gunpoint Feb. 3, about two weeks before Singh was shot.

Authorities said the woman crouched in her van and pleaded for her life as Cavazos, wearing a mask and baseball batting gloves, used an automated teller machine card to withdraw $20 from the woman's bank account.

Martha Carlton-Magaña, Cavazos' defense attorney, argued in court that there was no physical evidence that showed her client committed the crimes, only circumstantial evidence that fit the prosecution's theory.

"I'm extremely disappointed with the jury's decision," Carlton-Magaña said after the verdict was announced. "I thought the evidence showed he was innocent."

The defense attorney stood in the courthouse lobby and explained the verdict to Cavazos' family and supporters, who sat in the courtroom Tuesday morning. Cavazos' family did not want to comment.

Enhancements added to Cavazos' charges for using a gun in the murder and the carjacking and for committing murder during an attempted robbery will lengthen his prison sentence.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen scheduled Cavazos to return to court Dec. 5 to be sentenced. The defendant remains in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail.

Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan said Cavazos faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole.

The prosecutor argued in court that the robbers failed to steal anything from the convenience store and were leaving the business when Cavazos aimed a 10mm handgun at Singh and opened fire. Brennan called Singh's death a "thrill killing."

"This is one of the most callous and senseless murders I have ever prosecuted," Brennan said after the verdict. "Despite having an easy escape route, Cavazos chose to follow through with his plan to execute Randeep Singh."

Authorities said David and Paul Gonzalez were Cavazos' accomplices in the robbery and the carjacking. The brothers received plea deals in exchange for their testimony against Cavazos, their cousin. They testified that Cavazos shot Singh.

The Gonzalezes initially were charged with murder, but pleaded guilty to carjacking and attempted robbery as part of their plea agreement.

David Gonzalez was sentenced to 19 years eight months in prison. Paul Gonzalez was sentenced to time served while waiting to testify against Cavazos and was expected to be released once Cavazos' trial concluded.

Defense: Witnesses lied

Carlton-Magaña argued that the Gonzalez brothers lied in court to avoid a murder charge and life in prison without parole. She said authorities quickly indicated that Cavazos was the primary target of their investigation, so the Gonzalez brothers knew who to blame for Singh's death.

"They had every reason to lie," Carlton-Magaña said after the verdict. "The brothers saved themselves."

The jury of four women and eight men began deliberating shortly before noon Thursday. They resumed deliberations Monday and returned to the courtroom with a verdict about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.

The attempted robbery occurred about 1:30 a.m. Feb. 16, 2007, at the Quik Stop market and gas station in the 4200 block of Sisk Road, just north of Pelandale Avenue and just south of Salida.

Authorities said two robbers entered the store wearing masks similar to the mask worn by the villain in the slasher movie "Scream." The prosecutor told the jury the masked robbers were Cavazos and Paul Gonzalez, that Singh was in the store alone, and that David Gonzalez helped them escape.

In a security camera video shown to the jury, Singh is seen swinging a broom at the robbers to force them out of the store. His family said Singh had been in this country for three months and had only one week of experience working graveyard shift before the shooting.

"They didn't even take anything," the victim's aunt said about the robbers. "They didn't have any reason to take his life."

Singh's family members have relinquished ownership of the store because they found it too difficult to operate the business after the shooting. "We didn't want to lose another child," Bhatti said.

Jeetinder Kaur, Singh's mother, wept in the courthouse hallway after the verdict and was not able to comment. Mohinder Bhatti, the victim's uncle, said his nephew was a hardworking young man who wanted to take care of his mother.

"He was the only son she had," Mohinder Bhatti said about Singh's mother. "Now she lost her son."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or (209) 578-2394.

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